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Called to service
Ms. Wheelchair Washington: Fort Lewis careerwoman spreads message of strength, determination
DEBBIE CAFAZZO; The News Tribune • Published June 23, 2009
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Jannette Saxton is a woman of action.
It’s easy to see as she navigates the crowded hallway in Fort Lewis’ Waller Hall, quickly guiding her wheelchair between knots of soldiers and civilian workers going about their daily business.
Her progress might be more rapid, if only she weren’t wearing the crown and sash of Ms. Wheelchair Washington. Co-workers repeatedly stop her to congratulate her on the title.
Saxton chats, smiles and moves forward.
Her dedication to getting on with it – her work as a civilian mobilization and deployment specialist for the U.S. Army, life with a disability, her determination to serve as a role model for others – helped earn the 31-year-old Lakewood woman her state title in February. In August, she’ll head to Rapid City, S.D., to compete for the crown of Ms. Wheelchair America.
“I don’t see myself as a beauty queen,” says Saxton. “I see myself as a woman called to make a difference. If that means putting on a sash and a crown, then I’ll do it.”
At Waller Hall, Saxton’s desk is one of 14 stops for soldiers as they make their way through the Soldier Readiness Processing Center.
She is there to make sure each member of the Army has a plan in place to ensure that the soldier’s family is cared for while the soldier deploys.
As Ms. Wheelchair Washington, she has visited soldiers in the spinal cord injury unit at the Seattle V.A. Hospital. She said their courage and the depth of their sacrifice impressed her.
She believes she owes a debt to soldiers wounded in past battles who have returned home and fought for the rights of people with disabilities.
“I believe because of the veterans returning from combat that we as a community (of disabled people) have the rights we do,” she says.
Using a wheelchair to get around is part of who she is, says Saxton. But she tries not to let the device define her.
“It’s not constantly on my mind,” she says.
Sometimes, when she sees her reflection in a shop window, she has to remind herself, “Oh. That’s me.”
So far, her tenure as Ms. Wheelchair Washington has been a busy one.
Saxton spoke earlier this year to members of TACID – Tacoma Area Coalition for Individuals with Disabilities. In July, she plans to visit Spokane to volunteer at athletic events for paralyzed veterans.
At the national competition in August, she’ll talk about the philosophy that sustains her. She summarizes it with the acronym ACTION: Achieving Confidence Through Inspiration, Optimism, and Nurturing.
It’s the story of her life.
Born prematurely, she developed cerebral palsy. She was unable to walk until the age of 6, and she wore metal braces on her lower legs. When she was 11, she had spinal cord surgery, and spent a month in the hospital, then a year doing daily therapy.
“Being so young and facing that made me put my priorities in order quickly,” says Saxton. “My family was always by my side, celebrating small victories.”
Saxton’s parents, Robert and Beverly Saxton, along with her sister, Sarah Buckholz, have helped encourage her in achieving her goals.
Her parents, both retired educators, supported her dreams as she crossed one academic milestone after another – leaving home for Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, then earning a master’s degree in counseling from the University of San Diego.
She says her journalism training and love of the written word has helped her as Ms. Wheelchair Washington. Her three-minute speech during the competition was titled “I grew up sitting down.”
But as a teenager at Lakes High School, she wasn’t so confident.
“I think every teenager thinks they’re a maverick, struggling against the grain,” Saxton says. “But by having a disability, that’s magnified.
“Growing up having a disability put the fire in me. It helped me grow up faster.”
Saxton entered the Ms. Wheelchair contest because she “wanted to do something to inspire other people to achieve their dreams.”
Whether someone uses a wheelchair, struggles with ill health, worries about job loss or battles demons of the mind, Saxton believes that everyone has challenges in life that they must overcome.
Right now, one obstacle Saxon faces is raising the money needed to compete nationally.
The entry fee for the national contest is $1,500. That doesn’t include clothes, air travel or ground transportation. Last month, her church held an auction to help with fundraising for the trip.
As Ms. Wheelchair, Saxton wants to inspire people of all abilities to rise above the barriers they face.
She believes her title can draw attention to her message, just as her crown catches the eyes of co-workers.
Saxton says it’s hard getting up some mornings, when pain threatens to cut her down. On those days, she says, she feels lucky to get out the door and off to work.
But she doesn’t want able-bodied people to mistake her for some kind of Super Woman.
“I don’t have a cape,” she says. “But at the moment, I do have a crown.”
And she plans to use it.
Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635
To read more about Jannette Saxton’s experiences as Ms. Wheelchair Washington, check out her blog at http://mswheelchairwashington.blogspot.com